Getting Personal

Problem

You are working towards change for an environmental issue that will have an impact on the lives of many homeowners, tourists, and businessmen. Telling their stories would bring an authentic, crediblevoice to your issue or campaign. The only problem is you haven’t found a way to bring those specific personal stories to the press. How do you find these people? How does your group go about coaching them to talk to the press? What is the benefit of turning environmental stories into human interest stories as opposed to having a business, political, or scientific angle?

 

Strategy

Almost all environmental issues have a personal story attached to it. From the child who is deeply disturbed by the whale who has washed up on the beach, to the rancher who just wants out of an environmentally destructive grazing contract, personal stories are often what make these environmental stories most intriguing to an audience. Putting a face on a technical or bureaucratic issue not only makes for a great lead and photographs, but allows the public to connect to the environmental movement in a way that is simple, personal, long-lasting, and most importantly, effective.

Step 1: Go and find them

So you know you want to find a regular Joe or Judy who has been impacted by an environmental issue. But how do you find them? They’re everywhere, you just need to know where to look, and be willing to invest a little time and legwork.

If there are town hall meetings or public forums about this issue, attend them. Look for people who are passionate about their stance, but don’t discount those who may be quieter about voicing their opinions. The people who attend these meetings are there for a reason—because they are concerned for their community and want to enact change. Approach a variety of different people—you never know where you’ll find that perfect personal story.

Who has been writing letters to the editor on this? Blogs? News group postings? Consider approaching them. What about people who have signed petitions for statewide initiatives?

News reporters are often called upon on a moment’s notice to find “regular people” for comment in their stories. Sometimes they just ask colleagues if they know anyone who has done something relevant to the subject at hand. Sometimes they solicit people through news groups – visit www.dejanews.com. Sometimes they just approach people on the street. This is a scary notion for those unaccustomed to approaching strangers but it can be incredibly effective.

You may want to avoid people who may be looked upon by the press as a “seasoned environmentalist,” that is someone who has taken up several different environmental issues in the past. Definitely do not pursue someone who does environmental advocacy for a living. The point of this exercise is to deliberately avoid having readers and viewers react by saying, “Of course that person would think that.” Rather, you want them to react by thinking, “That person is like me. I can relate to what they’re saying.”

Step 2: Coach them

It may seem illogical to coach someone on how to tell their own personal story, but when the goal is to get across your most important and strategic messages, there really is a right and wrong way to talk to reporters. Offer to help train people on how to respond to reporters’ questions. They should stick to two or three key themes. Keep responses short; less really is more. When the discussion veers off message, bring it back with transitions like, “the more important point here is…” Reporters will look for interesting anecdotes—people should retell the fundamental messages through those personal anecdotes.

It is imperative that you provide the reporter with positive, appealing words, images and ideas that will make them want to put your message in their story. “Sound bites” may sound like an irritating cliché, but they are the punctuation points of any story.

Resource Media has more information available on this subject and you may want to consider one of our messaging workshops.

Step 3: Pitch it!

A successful pitch can hinge on a number of different factors. One of those factors is choosing the right publication. Look for newspapers that have an active and healthy ‘Living’ section, or any equivalent department that provides in depth profiles of people. Pitch your story to reporters that cover those stories, as well as environmental reporters who do a good job covering local issues.

In your pitch letter you want to be sure to focus on the personal nature of the news story. Use their personal story as a hook, by providing details such as local landmarks and recent incidents. Don’t start out your pitch with the legislation, action committees, or petitions currently out there—you want to get a reporter’s attention, and that won’t do it.

Conclusion

There are numerous ways to pitch an environmental story. Personal stories are a great way to draw in an audience who does not necessarily have any background on an environmental issue, or who views environmentalists unfavorably. By showing that environmental degradation affects everybody in the community, personal stories give well-rounded exposure to crucial environmental issues that have not earned enough attention in the media.

 

Download the Document:

September 2004 Media Tip